Kapil Sibal wants to be charioteer, not the horse

There is skepticism around his move. Yet, like our teen chess prodigy Praggnanandha who has beaten the world chess champion Magnus Carlsen twice, Sibal would be dreaming of doing the same politically. It is the larger political role which drives him now more than winning more cases in the court

“He is no lawyer who cannot take two sides” (Charles Lamb).

Prerequisites for being a successful and competent lawyer include eloquence, confidence, creativity, perseverance and above all persuasive skills. Kapil Sibal has always ticked all the boxes besides possessing the necessary pedigree.

No surprise then, that jurists tend to easily slip into the skin of a politician. The transition for Kapil Sibal was equally smooth. His grandiloquence was matched with people-pleasing skills and the ability to “work the crowd”.

A familiar face in the corridors of power as well as on television sets, Kapil Sibal learned a lot from his association with the Congress party for almost 3 decades. And like an able attorney, he was able to work both sides for a really long time.

His leaving the Grand Old Party is not just about a veteran deserting a sinking ship but also a telling narrative of a well-entrenched political organization that remains bewildered and unable to survive the marauding BJP juggernaut.

Kapil Sibal resigned from the Congress and filed a Rajya Sabha nomination as an Independent candidate with backing from the Samajwadi Party. He said, “I have filed nomination as an Independent candidate with the help of SP.”

In the cascade of TV interviews, a perpetually affable Sibal steered clear of criticizing his homestead. A clever move. He has already spat enough venom against the Gandhi family publicly. He was perhaps the lone voice in the G 23 “rebel” group in the Congress who asked for a change in leadership – minus the Gandhis.

The moment he said that the doors of the grand old party were shut on him forever. Both sides knew it. And it was just a matter of time before the inevitable split.

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“I requested Akhilesh you that I wanted to go to RS and to please support me as an Independent. After 30 years, it was time to quit and work as an Independent, would not speak against Congress now at any point. I have a good relationship with many opposition leaders. My wife says we have a connection with Uttar Pradesh.”

Reacting to the development, Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav said, “Kapil Sibal is going to Rajya Sabha with SP’s support. Kapil Sibal is a senior lawyer. He has presented his opinions well in Parliament. We hope he’ll present the opinions of both SP as well as himself.”

Akhilesh Yadav: ANI

But that’s not the entire truth. Fact remains the Samajwadi Party and their leaders need a lot of support in court. It helps to have Sibal watch their backs. Take Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan’s case.

On 20th May, Khan was released on interim bail from Uttar Pradesh’s Sitapur jail, where he served 27 months in connection with several cases, including that of alleged land-grabbing. Sibal is Khan’s counsel in the Supreme Court.

“It is Kapil Sibal’s ‘right’ to be nominated to the Rajya Sabha and it would be an honor for any political party to do so,” Azam Khan told journalists.

Almost in reflection, Kapil Sibal told the media he was appalled at the treatment meted out to Azam Khan. No one should have suffered the way he did.” And then added with a grimace: “As long as I am here people like him (Azam) don’t have to worry.”

Sibal is shrewd enough to not take potshots at the Congress after performing the tango with Akhilesh Yadav. He is too canny and clever to indulge in a war of words at this stage. He doesn’t want to rant or whinge as it won’t help his image of being a fat cat lawyer.

He has bigger fish to fry. His political ambitions have also soared. He sees himself as a catalyst for putting together a rainbow coalition of different political hues for the big fight against the BJP. It is here his representation for different political parties in Court helps him forge alliances.

Has he bitten off more than he can chew?

There is skepticism around his move. Yet, like our teen chess prodigy Praggnanandha who has beaten the world chess champion Magnus Carlsen twice, Sibal would be dreaming of doing the same politically. It is the larger political role which drives him now more than winning more cases in the court.

His future plans are to “unite the opposition to oppose the present BJP dispensation which is following anti-people policies and which is dividing the inclusive culture of India.” Maybe the role of “Bhishampitamah” excites him at the age of 73.

Sibal first entered Rajya Sabha in 1998 to represent Bihar. He later contested from Chandni Chowk and won twice in 2004 and 2009.

Sibal served under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as a minister holding various portfolios over the years. He was often portrayed as an intellectual face of the Congress who batted for the party on television and in print. That he was very amiable and accessible made him way more popular than a P. Chidambaram; largely seen as condescending and disdainful.

But why did he make this move now? What was the immediate trigger?

Congress president Sonia Gandhi had personally met several leaders from the G-23 who had openly expressed concern about the party’s functioning. And were obviously worried about their diminishing role as Rahul Gandhi set up his own team.

Kapil Sibal wants to be charioteer not the horse

File image of Congress president Sonia Gandhi. PTIA

Sonia with Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anand Sharma, Manish Tewari, and Vivek Tankha. She also reached out to Bhupinder Singh Hooda and Prithviraj Chavan.

The softening of stances had been taking place for some time. Losing assembly elections has also jolted the Congress.

While most of the other G-23 members spoke of reform, Sibal openly called for the Gandhis to quit the Congress’ leadership. “Gandhis should step aside, give another leader a chance,” he had said .

In August 2021, Sibal had organized a dinner attended by several leaders from the Congress, allied parties like the DMK and RJD and also non-Congress Opposition parties like TMC, AAP, SAD, BJD, YSRCP, TRS, and TDP among others.

A message in a bottle was sent out. The Gandhis were portrayed as an impediment to Opposition unity.

Sonia, on the other hand, tried to send out a positive signal by including G-23 leaders Ghulam Nabi Azad and Anand Sharma in an eight-member political affairs group she constituted to advise her.

Sonia also announced a task force for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections which has election strategist Sunil Kanugolu as a member. Kanugolu, who was once with Prashant Kishor, has become part of the Congress’s campaign and election management efforts for 2024.

Sonia had announced the setting up of the two bodies in her concluding address at the Udaipur chintan shivir. Now that Azad and Sharma have been included in the political affairs group headed by her, it remains to be seen whether the two would be considered for Rajya Sabha seats. The party is in a position to get 9-10 seats.

A central planning group for coordination of the Bharat Yatra which will begin on 2 October is in place.

For the yatra, the Congress has already decided to reach out to like-minded political forces and civil society groups to make the exercise broad-based, pegging it on issues like attack on the Constitution, assault on secularism and the sale of profit-making PSUs. The yatra, to be led by Rahul, is expected to go on for four to five months as the aim is to traverse 3,500-odd kilometers across a dozen-odd states.

In this frenetic atmosphere of sabre-rattling, the Congress has much less room for maneuver. It needs to evolve fast. Take tough decisions. Show results.

But never forget what they say about a lawyer: “You win some and you lose some, but you get paid for all of them.” —Anonymous

The author is CEO of nnis. Views are personal.

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